When I was a kid, my neighbors had a good climbing tree in their front yard and we would play with their kids for hours during the summer in that tree. Of course, the fear of breaking an arm was always in the forefront of our minds and kept us pretty close to the grounud. But I do remember one time I climbed up the tree until I could nearly touch the power lines that ran through the top of that tree. From there I could see most of the neighborhood. In Luke 19.1-10, we read about a short man who climbs a tall tree and finds a seeking Savior.
A Wealthy, Short Man
The Place. Jesus is still on the path that will lead him to Jerusalem. In the previous section (18.35-43) he was getting ever closer to Jericho. Now he is actually entering Jericho. Scholars debate about which Jericho this was: the original Jewish Jericho or the new Jericho built by the Romans. You can study that out and make your own conclusions. Never the less, Jesus enters Jerusalem and “was passing through.” He had no intention of staying there; he has a mission in Jerusalem.
The Person. Enter Zacchaeus. This man is described as “chief tax collector.” That is, he was the manager over those who collected taxes. He ordered which officers to go to which person and collect what taxes. No doubt he had used that power to skim a bit off the top for Luke says he was rich. It is interesting that in the previous chapter, Jesus has just explained about how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom (18.24). In that same account, the rich man there went away sad but we will find Zacchaeus goes home joyful. But Jesus is a friend to tax collectors and sinners (7.34) and here is an account of just that. Also, here is an example of an impossibility made possible: a rich man enters the kingdom.
The Problem. Zacchaeus would like to see Jesus. There is, though, one big problem: he cannot see him for all the people pressing in around Him. Zacchaeus was a short man and with the great crowd of people surrounding Jesus, he was not able to get even a glimpse of Jesus. What’s a guy to do? His solution is to run ahead, a very undignified thing for a rich, chief tax collector to do, and find a tree to climb that was on the route Jesus was taking through the city and then he would see Jesus.
The Wise Son of Man
So here comes Jesus and Zacchaeus is ready…ready to get his quick glimpse of Jesus. Why did he want to see Jesus? v.3 says he just wanted to see who he was. What’s all the hubbub about? Just like most people, they just wanted to know. But something incredible happens. Jesus comes to the tree and stops. Then he looks up and addresses Zacchaeus. Think about that: these men (far as we know) have never met, he hasn’t been told this man’s name, doesn’t know him from Adam, and yet he calls him by name! “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10.14). He knows his name. But not only that he tells him “hurry and come down” (something Zacchaeus literally does in v.6, note the parallelism) because he must stay (literally abide) at his house. Some commentators say that Jesus is going to stay overnight with Zacchaeus. Possibly. But later in the chapter (v.28) it seems like Jesus just passes through. You can judge for yourself.
Nevertheless we see the inspired wisdom of the Son of Man in knowing Zacchaeus immediately and calling him by name. Zacchaeus catches this as well and receives Jesus joyfully! He is overjoyed that Jesus will be staying with him. However, not all is well. In verse 7, not some people, but all the people are upset and grumbling about Jesus being a guest in the house of a “sinner.” Again, He is a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.” But Zacchaeus is undaunted; he stands up to make an announcement that everyone who was ever taken advantage by his tax police, he was going to reimburse personally four times what he took. There’s some good news if you were under his tax jurisdiction!
A Wonderful, Saving Message
Jesus hears this and has an announcement to make himself. While all these people are grumbling, Jesus teaches them about salvation. There is a change which has taken place in the heart of Zacchaeus. He did not realize it, but even with all his money gained by extortion, he was still poor because he was not right with God. And certainly as a Jew Zacchaeus was a “son of Abraham” and Jesus went to the lost sheep of Israel (Matt 15.24), but Jesus seems also to be pointing toward Zacchaeus’ faith. It is Abrahamic in nature and is a saving faith for it is an acting faith.
Luke 19.10 is a key passage in Luke. In fact, it could be the purpose of the whole book. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (ESV). This is the mission and purpose of Jesus. First, we see the greatest missionary – Jesus, the Son of Man. Second, we have the greatest missionary journey – he came. That is, he came from heaven with all of its splendid privileges and prerogatives and came to earth. Third we have the greatest mission – to seek and save. Like a loving shepherd looking for even one, Jesus is searching and finding his lost sheep. Fourth, we have the greatest mission field – the lost. Every single person who has transgressed the law of God and marred their perfect image.